"Illness as a Teacher: How the Revitalization of Your Mortality Can Transform Your Life"
by Baeth Davis, The Hand Analyst, Inc.
I had no idea that when I saw Kari in her compromised condition - pale, bald and physically weak - how powerfully I would be confronted with my own mortality. Kari is a stellar 'patient' - and gives new meaning to the word. Every day, she is transfused with one substance or another - blood, platelets, medicine, fluids. She receives these vital substances through a tube called a Hickman catheter. (I met Dr. Hickman in the elevator. What a spirit! He radiates warmth and love.) The catheter inserts through her chest, near her heart, and runs directly into her superior vena cava. Kari does not complain, always ready with a smile and hello for the nurses and doctors who attend to her and the complex intricacies of her healing. As I write this, I sit beside her in the clinic as she receives a unit of lavender hued blood.
Her treatment fills every day of every week. She catches short naps between procedures and tries to sleep through the night but is usually awakened by a beeping monitor. She's had more than one person ask her, "So what do you DO all day? You must have so much free time." Ha. Ha. Kari spends each day fighting for her life.
Watching her fight, it is clear how precious and fleeting our time on Earth really is. We all walk the line between life and death every day. The perception that we have unlimited time is an illusion.
It is this illusion of immortality that leads to many of our soul-killing choices. But seeing Kari fight for more time, more life, I feel things more intensely. I've noticed that I am spending more and more time doing what I love and less and less time worrying and judging myself. The immediacy of Kari's experience is akin to skiing down a double-black diamond slope. Death is nearby, watching, waiting for the inevitable, but life is the choice. I'll take as much as I can get.
It is visceral, exciting and compelling. I've never experienced anything like it.
Here are some gems of wisdom this experience has afforded me:
1. Live each day as if it were your last.
One of my guiding life queries is: If today were the last day of my life, did I make a difference? Did I live to the fullest? When I can end the day answering 'yes,' I know I'm on track with my life goals and purpose. When I answer 'no,' I know it's time to get busy with what is most important. Kari's situation has made this formerly intellectual concept vibrantly real for me.
2. Celebrate grey hair and wrinkles!
Kari's fight for another day, another breath, another chance is a reminder to be grateful for every moment I have. That grey hair, the thickening midriff, those lines around my eyes - all are indicators that I've been granted more time for living. Chasing youth is the denial of death and the avoidance of life, not to mention a huge waste of time.
3. Life is a mystery.
The doctors have no idea why Kari developed leukemia.
Why Kari? It could have just as easily have been me. Kari lives a model lifestyle: she eats organic food, practices yoga, walks daily, knits beautiful caps and sweaters, has a positive outlook, has loving friends and family, and graduated at the top of her class at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. She also holds an MFA in Fine Arts. Her entire life has been structured around creating a balanced, successful existence.
Prevention can only go so far to protect against life's uncertainties. Sometimes we get blind-sided by the unexpected. It is a mystery. And it's definitely not 'fair.'
4. Hold the 'good advice.'
I've noticed that when I tell some people about Kari's situation, they are full of suggestions about what she should try to heal her condition. Kari receives excellent care - the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance is among the best treatment facilities for cancer in the world - by highly trained professionals. Her situation is very complex and requires expert supervision. In the beginning, I had my ideas, too. I'm aware that my need to solve the situation is a way to feel more in control. It doesn’t work and just confuses and exhausts the patient. A teacher I know, who lives with diabetes, expressly tells her students, "Please refrain from offering the instructor healing advice." Healing is a profoundly personal issue. In other words, what works for you may not work for someone else. In fact, it may harm them.
5. Get good health insurance!
If you don't have it. . . well, what can I say? "I can't afford it" is not an excuse. Maybe make those lattes at home. Kari's medical expenses have already exceeded two million dollars!!! Yes, you read correctly. Please don't gamble on your future. Fortunately, Kari acquired excellent insurance BEFORE she got sick.
6. Surrendering "it" to the Universe.
When I think of my connection to God/spirit/infinity, I literally imagine the Universe in my mind's eye. I see a vast expanse of space, filled with stars, planets, zooming comets and meteors. This image reminds me of my place in the cosmos and how small I am and how big it is. For me, this is comforting. When I have a problem I can't solve, I turn it over to the Universe. As a mental construct, this 'turning it over' to infinity allows me to focus on what I can control. Kari expressed to me how tiring it's been to be the perfect patient and figure it all out. She's decided to turn her illness over the Universe and focus on what she can control - her thoughts, her words, her deeds. Surrender in this context is not about giving up but about asking for help and letting go of those things we cannot control.
I have two dreams:
1. That Kari's recovery is complete. She has stated explicitly that she wants to live and I fully support her choice.
2. That Kari comes to know the depth and breadth of her generosity. Even in her compromised physical condition, she gives abundantly of her love and spirit. Sometimes when a person has a life-altering illness, they may feel uncomfortable relying on the support of others. The irony is that we, the others, feel so blessed to be able to help.
May we use the time we have and make the most of it!
To paraphrase Oprah, "I believe you have a responsibility to you and your Creator to be your very best self." If not now, when?
Â© 2007 The Hand Analyst, Inc. Baeth Davis is "The Hand Analyst"
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